'Rocket attack' threat highlights terror risk faced by prosperous Asia

News of a plot to launch a rocket from Indonesia's Batam towards Singapore's glitzy Marina Bay area offers insight into the evolving terrorism threat to Asia.

Indonesian counterterrorism forces quashed the plot last Friday with the arrest of six members of a local extremist group, Katibah Gigih Rahmat (KGR), known for smuggling militants into Syria to fight for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). One was later released because he had no links to the cell.

Police said the leader of the cell, Gigih Rahmat Dewa, planned the rocket attack with Syria-based Indonesian militant Bahrun Naim. Bahrun officially pledged himself to ISIS in 2014, and travelled to Syria last year.

Indonesia's successful operations appear to have prevented an attack on South-east Asia's most tranquil and prosperous destination, as well as helped to deny ISIS a wilayah, or foothold, in a rural sanctuary. But there is little time to celebrate, if only because terrorism continues to menace this rapidly developing swathe of Asia.

The good news is that most of the recent plots carried out in Indonesia have been poorly executed by incompetent local operatives. Overstating their effectiveness only heightens the incentives for further attacks by ISIS. The January ISIS- sponsored attack on the Sarinah shopping mall in Jakarta, for example, killed four suicide bombers and four civilians, a death toll that could have been much higher with better-trained operatives.

But this may be changing. The nature of the connection between ISIS and its lackeys in Indonesia is a growing concern. Bahrun is said to have sent money to KGR and instructs his followers via the Internet. It was the social media conversation that tipped off police.

With the terror group under pressure in Syria and Iraq, the incentives to send well-trained fighters back to Indonesia have increased. This, combined with the easy access to smartphones in every Indonesian prison, sets up a dangerous threat of future terrorism in and from Indonesia, by operatives instructed, trained and equipped not just virtually but in the real world.

Unfortunately, this scheme to fire a rocket at a prized development and destination could foretell how terrorism and political violence will develop in coming decades.

Batam, about 19km from down- town Singapore, is an industrial centre in the midst of the booming growth triangle formed by Indo- nesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

Although we don't know how far along the plot had progressed, the foiled attack cannot help but evoke past Hizbollah attacks on Israel. Aggrieved individuals and small groups may design and execute acts of terrorism in the most developed quarters of Asia.

The crackdown on KGR marked Indonesia's second high-profile counterterrorism action in the past month. In mid-July, Alpha 29, part of the 3,000-strong military-police counterterrorism task force, conducted Operation Tinombala in the central Sulawesi town of Poso, killing Indonesia's most-wanted terrorist, Abu Wardah, or Santoso as he was more commonly known.

Santoso's small terror group, the East Indonesia Mujahideen, murdered security forces and recruited its small force from global terror hot spots, including Uighurs from China's restive Xinjiang.

Indonesia's successful operations appear to have prevented an attack on South-east Asia's most tranquil and prosperous destination, as well as helped to deny ISIS a wilayah, or foothold, in a rural sanctuary. But there is little time to celebrate, if only because terrorism continues to menace this rapidly developing swathe of Asia.

A number of countries already seem to be responding to these emerging challenges. Indonesia's counterterrorism successes under President Joko Widodo are one indicator. Singapore remains a global leader in tracking terrorism and was apparently fully in the loop on the raid in Batam.

Meanwhile, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have agreed on joint maritime patrols in the Sulu Sea, allowing each the right of "hot pursuit" into the other's territory in order to nab Abu Sayyaf and other traffickers of violence.

But more needs to be done. Counterterrorism cooperation, while not masking diverse local and national issues, can mobilise nations around a key challenge. All of the countries in Asia could find common cause on information-sharing to counter the threat of ISIS, terrorism and political violence.

Chinese President Xi Jinping may want to raise the issue at the Group of 20 summit in Hangzhou next month, and his US counterpart Barack Obama could raise the issue at the East Asia Summit immediately following in Laos.

Cooperation on terrorism will not remove growing geopolitical competition or maritime tensions. However, it could enhance stability in a vital region with diverse actors and an inherently complex set of relations with China.

Aggrieved local groups with access to global information and modern weapons may fall short of posing an existential threat to any state. But the disruption they can cause, and the fear of such disruption, will be costly in prosperous Asia. Preventing future attacks must be a shared priority among nations, as is mitigating the potential effects of attacks when they do happen.

Countries in the Asia-Pacific need to build new levels of cooperation now if they are to continue to avert the worst consequences of this phase in the evolution of terrorism and political violence throughout the region.

• Dr Audrey Kurth Cronin is professor of international relations at American University and Dr Patrick M. Cronin is senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Programme at the Centre for a New American Security, both in Washington, DC.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2016, with the headline ''Rocket attack' threat highlights terror risk faced by prosperous Asia'. Print Edition | Subscribe